The Boat People Back In The Day!
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Wed Jun 1, 2016 at 11:26am

Looking Back At The Families Living & Working on The Canal

Let’s have a look back at our inland waterways and discover more about the interesting people who lived and worked on our beautiful canal system during the Victorian era.

Once the waterways were built men, women and children worked long hard hours and sometimes in dangerous conditions to ensure the boats cargos reached their destinations. Earning a living on the canal network was not for the faint-hearted.

Day To Day Life

One area on the canal system that was regularly used for transportation of goods was Foxton Locks in Leicestershire a pretty part of the Grand Union Canal and not far from our own marina.

Just as it is today, back in the day it was also a well-used canal, as if you keep traveling on this route the canal eventually takes you all the way to London. Today it is a popular leisure spot for tourists, boaters and day trippers, but back in the 19th century it was anything from pretty and leisurely.

There was estimated around 18,000 families working and living on working canal boats, with 3000 women making up this number. So what was life like on this stretch of water during this time? Well quite simply, in its hay day it would have been very busy. During 1800 – 1840 this was the main route between the industrial Midlands and London. So there would have been coal going down to London and coming the other way would be goods coming up from the London docks, it was a hive of activity.

Fly boats were the express boats of the time and would work constantly day and night these were mainly manned by men only. The slow boats carried coal, stone and timber all of which were pulled by horses as there were no engines in any part of the 19th century.


The boaters sometimes came from farming back grounds and diversified to make more money. The transportation of goods was very much a family affair, with even the children growing up on the boats learning to help. As soon as the children were old enough they were expected to help out, there was no room for passengers on these trips and everyone had to pull their weight. Children soon learned how to operate the locks and lead the horses, playing an active part in working life. The work was hard and tough with some days lasting a grueling 17 hours.

The early boaters couldn't read or write due to a lack of education. However, they knew their numbers as they didn’t want to tricked be out of their wages!

The families place of work was also their home and with a lack of space, overcrowding, poor hygiene and limited conditions being just a few issues families faced every day on the boat. Life could be tough for all on-board. Families could include; husband and wife and up to 6 children all living in a very limited space which could cause cramped and uncomfortable living conditions. The boats cabin could be freezing in winter and boiling in the summer making their living accommodation anything but ideal.

The boating families made up a very strong community, having their own culture and way of life. They decorated the interiors of the boats with lace and rag rugs and decorated the exteriors with rose and castle paintings.

The families working the canal system were like the long distance lorry drivers of today, they had a job to do and they all mucked in to get the job done. However even though the whole family may have been working on the boat there was only one wage and that was paid once the boats goods where delivered. So the faster they got their cargo to it's destination the quicker they got paid. So basically the faster they worked, the more trips they could do and the more they were paid.

Extra money could be earned if the cargo was unloaded by the boaters, and as you can imagine they didn't have much time for leisure activities and relaxation due to the long hours they kept.

Despite these families working so hard, the boaters (sometimes referred too as “bargees”) gained a rather bad reputation. The Victorians grew suspicious of the boaters who rarely left the towpath and branded them; drinkers, criminals, scruffy and violent people. Some of these labels were warranted as they did drink and their appearance wasn’t the cleanest due to the work and living conditions they were subjected too. Fights would sometimes break out when a dispute was had at locks, giving them the reputation of being violent people.

Health Issues

In Braunston Northamptonshire, also known as the boats man’s spiritual home, (this was because many boaters chose this place for baptisms and burials), a deadly disease struck the village, it was carried along the canal from London. Filthy water was already a real hazard due to the poorly kept waterways and Typhoid was rife, but when Cholera arrived in the 1830s the results were catastrophic. It had a devastating impact on families, the church in Braunston also known as the “Cathedral of the Canals” holds some of the secrets about what happened during this time. Victims of the disease were buried in the village and the disease was said to have arrived in the village via a narrow boat. It’s said that a skipper brought his laundry ashore and took it to the local washer women who did the washing, but then caught Cholera and died.

In an attempt to deal with the outbreak the yards and boats were cleansed, 5 houses in the village were used to treat the sick; there were 70 cases in all and sadly 19 deaths. The outbreak of the disease did bring the boaters and land people together in their attempt to try and get the outbreak of Cholera under control.

During 1930 to 1960 Sister Mary became the Angel of the Waterways, she was never professionally qualified as a nurse, but on a day to day basis’s she dealt with problems caused by lack of healthcare and emergency situations caused by accidents, and more serious problems in her home village of Stoke Bruerne.

She was one of a kind and earned a British Empire Medal in 1951 for her selfless work. She retired in 1965. She was quoted as saying "You can't take me away from boat people. There isn't one of them wouldn't die for me, or one I wouldn't die for.”

Child Labour

During the Victorian era when children were expected to work in factories and mines. The canal children were on the bottom of the list when it came to safeguarding them and having any form of education. Eventually the Victorian parliament did recognise the need for children to have schooling and play time and the man who helped make those changes was the “children’s friend” George Smith. from Coalville. He was a dedicated and passionate man who never gave up and suffered personal financial problems in order to protect all working children. He worked for many long years to have his “wish list” of improvements put into place for working children;

Georges Wish List for The Boating Children;

  • No Boys on boats under 13 years old to work or sleep
  • No girls under the age of 18
  • Minimum space for sleeping in cabins
  • Cabin inspections to improve conditions
  • Canal boat children to pass a basic standard of education

Finally parliament passed a law that protected the canal children. Legislation was passed in 1877 which gave power to registration authorities to inspect boats and to restrict the number of people who could live on board. However the legislation simply permitted this to happen rather than required it to happen and little changed until the Act was amended in 1884.

Canal Children’s Schooling

The Victorians did not believe that children’s childhoods should be protected and they had the right to an education and play time. They didn’t think that learning from books at school would give them the same advantages as working in the labour market when they grew up. However in time laws were passed to enable canal children to gain an education. 

One of the schools was held on a boat and it was called the Elsdale, which opened in 1930. This made it easier for children, but they still did not attend every day. 

The Elsdale could take about 40 canal children who were provided with brief periods of education while their parents were awaiting orders.

By 1939 the Elsdale had become unsound and was hoisted onto the canal bank where schooling continued alongside the depot buildings until the 1950s.

When traveling the canal, children were able to attend schools where they only had to mix with their own kind like on the Elsdale. This suited the children and they enjoyed the novelty of attending school. However when the boats were moored, the children were expected to go to the main stream schools. However some of the children experienced bullying from the local children which didn’t make it such a pleasant experience for them.

By the 20th century it was compulsory for all children up to the age of 14 to attend school.

Sometimes the children would just turn up to clock in, but then move on with the family, if they didn’t settle in or if the family had to move on to find more work.

End Of An Era

Canal cargo was on the decline by the end of the 1960s, as faster means of transport was available i.e. the roads and railways. So by 1972 the canals started to be neglected and used for leisure purposes only.

Canal families moved away, and the children were often told to forget their backgrounds when settling into a new life due to the stigma of being from a boating background.

The working canals have shaped our landscape and have enriched our British history.

Now there is no stigma connected to being from a working boating background, in fact the complete opposite is true and people are interested in how the families lived and what it was like for all concerned.

Do you have a connection with the working canal people? If so we would love to hear your story and share your photos!


Margaret Greenfield | Wed Jul 31, 2019 at 3:46pm
Myself and my twin sister were born on the canal and there is a picture of us in Getty images in 1956 attending the boat school. My father Albert Joseph Beauchamp and mother left when we were 7 in order that we could get an education. One of the motor boats he had was Cactus which Mr. Braine has owned for over 40 years and is now back to its working livery with a bolinder engine. My mum;s brother George Smith was married to Sonia who later became Sonia Rolt. I could go on and on and send some pics if you are interested.
Whilton Marina | Mon Aug 12, 2019 at 2:54pm
Hello Margaret, Yes we would be very interested to see some old photographs and stories about you and your sisters upbringing on the canals.
Mark Tierney | Tue Oct 1, 2019 at 2:06am
Apparently, my Great-Grandfathers family worked on the canals. I don't know much about them, apart from his surname was Warwick, and he was from Coventry, born about 1880.
Whilton Marina | Tue Oct 1, 2019 at 12:28pm
Hello Mark, Thanks for reading our blog and commenting about your Grandfather. You should research about him to see if you can find more information.
karen newman | Sun Nov 3, 2019 at 7:36pm
Hello, I have Gardner ancestors that lived at Whilton in 1856 and Commander ancestors at Colwich. The 1881 census shows the Commanders as living at Canal Haywood Warf Boat "John" . They seem to have two barges, one of which is managed by the 23 year old daughter and her niece!
Whilton Marina | Fri Nov 22, 2019 at 4:08pm
Hi Karen, Thank you for reading our blog. Its lovely to hear stories of the canals and the local area we live in.
ELVIS | Fri Dec 20, 2019 at 4:36pm
Hi can anyone help me with some history and pic of whilton locks and the buildings. as i live in canal cottage. many thanks
Whilton Marina | Mon Jan 6, 2020 at 12:35pm
Hello Elvis, The only history we have is about the building of Whilton Marina. You can read this on our website page by copying this link and pasting it into your browser:
Graham | Mon Mar 16, 2020 at 10:38pm
Hi... I have read many fictional books of narrow boats during WW2 ... When ladies chose them instead of being land girls .. But really enjoyed reading your details on the history of narrow boats.. My grand father.. My father and uncles all worked on the oil barges here in Hull.. Which probably sparked my interest in narrow boats etc ... Keep up the great work guys.. Regards Graham
Whilton Marina | Tue Mar 17, 2020 at 1:12pm
Hello Graham, Thank you for sharing your thoughts about our blog with us.The Whilton Team
Peter Ramsden | Mon Mar 30, 2020 at 11:16am
I am trying to trace a member of my family who possibly worked on the Leeds/Liverpool canal in the Lancashire area. Do you know of any kind of register/book of boat people between 1850 and 1860 in this particular area. Thank you.
Whilton Marina | Sat Apr 4, 2020 at 3:22pm
Hello Peter, We aren't aware there was any register of boat people from the 1800's maybe you could try the local records office if you know the area that your ancester may have been born in.
Cathy Lowe | Mon Jul 13, 2020 at 2:40pm
Hi im looking for information about my matetnal grandparents. They worked for thomas clayton in the 1950s skipper lesley berridge. The nattow boat towy and i think kubina (not sure of spelling.) i know there was an interview with my mom then Gertrude berrige in a birming news paper but i am unable to find ot in arcives i have found. Was wondering if you could shed some light on the family history i would be so greatful. Kind regards cathy.
Whilton Marina | Thu Jul 16, 2020 at 3:14pm
Hi Cathy, Unfortunately we are unable to help you with information about your Grandparents.
Elizabeth Crossland | Sun Aug 16, 2020 at 10:28am
In answer to people researching their ancestors,there is a wonderful website called Boat people of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal or ODFHS for short. It has lists of people who worked on canals in that area also links to their family trees. There is a surname search too. I can't recommend it enough. My grt grt grt Grand father was a Boatman in Halton Runcorn area on the Bridgewater canal they were Hayes and Deakin familys Hope this information helps someone.
Whilton Marina | Mon Aug 17, 2020 at 3:27pm
Hi Elizabeth, Wow that website sounds amazing. Thank you for sharing.
Ricardo | Mon Oct 12, 2020 at 8:06am
Mums mother Martha Townsend nee Webb often spoke about her times on the Narrowboat and buttys often delivering chocolate, sugar and coal down from Dudley black country to Brentford and often used to help themselves to the provisions they were carrying.Her mother Mary Ann Townsend nee Webb married a William Townsend who was a master of canal boat and ended up in 1911 at Brentford, address giving as Grand Innsturs Canal Lord Roberts have no idea what address this is though, Nans brothers the Townsends had a barge and house next to the brentford dock. Unfortunately both her parents Mary Ann Townsend nee Webb and William were drowned on their boats in so i was told in very little water. Martha often spoke of an Eliza webb who she said was her Nan and seemed to be a helper in the boat at the time.Martha Townsend ended up at at an address called Victoria wharf in Brentford . If any one has any information regarding the Webbs and Townsend family they would like to share.
Whilton Marina | Fri Oct 16, 2020 at 3:51pm
Hi Ricardo, Thank you for sharing such a great story. Unfortunately we have no further information although the public may be able to help you. Many Thanks
John Darwood | Sun Nov 15, 2020 at 11:33am
Many thanks for this great and interesting site. I've Darwood ancestors from Birmingham who worked on the canals especially Braunston in the 1830s. I've checked the excellent N Warwickshire FHS site and the Staffs Canal Boat index without success. Any further sites would be welcome, please.
Whilton Marina | Thu Jan 21, 2021 at 1:03pm
Hi John, Thank you for your kind comments. Unfortunately I can't recommend any alternative sites you have listed the ones we would suggest.
Gail haynes | Sun Apr 25, 2021 at 8:03pm
My family where barge people Rick's they came from northhamton to southall then had a cottage at bulls bridge we have Seymour and woods to our name I would love to now more
Brenda | Sat May 8, 2021 at 2:25pm
I am currently researching my ancestors, I have little knowledge of them but do know my ggg parents were boat people. Their address on the 1881 Census is Canal Boat Met In The Township of Newton, Shropshire, it also states my ggg was a Master Dawr. It is so interesting learn how they lived at that time which no doubt was extremely difficult. Surname Ashley is anyone has any knowledge it would be appreciated.
Whilton Marina | Tue May 18, 2021 at 12:14pm
Hi Brenda,Unfortunately we have no more information for you. We wish you the best of luck.
Tracy JONES | Tue Jun 22, 2021 at 12:14pm
My mum and dad and rest off family worked the canals . My nan was well known x Dorothy and Sidney McDonald . I remember going to see my nan when she still lived in her boat . Based at Sutton stop Coventry .
Whilton Marina | Fri Jun 25, 2021 at 11:19am
Hi Tracy, What lovely memories you have of your mum and dad on the canals. Thank you for sharing
Janet Rigby | Sat Jul 10, 2021 at 10:40pm
My husband's ancestors the Ashcrofts worked on the Lancaster Canal until commercial traffic ceased in 1947 on horse driven canal boats from Preston to Kendal. In 2006 I wrote a book called Life on the Lancaster Canal inspired by this, followed by a photographic book Lancaster Canal in Focus. It included taped interviews with boatmen and women who have now gone together with photographs from their family albums. I am now in the process of doing a revised version with more information. I have a wonderful collection of photographs and postcards if anyone is interested.
Debi Higson | Mon Aug 2, 2021 at 6:52pm
I’m looking for any information about the Green family who worked on the boats. My grandmother married Frank Prince and we’ve connected with a lot of that side of family but not the Greens. Annie was born in Ellesmere Port in 1915 but travelled through midlands area with FMC during 1930-1950’s. Thx u
Debi Higson | Mon Aug 2, 2021 at 6:52pm
I’m looking for any information about the Green family who worked on the boats. My grandmother married Frank Prince and we’ve connected with a lot of that side of family but not the Greens. Annie was born in Ellesmere Port in 1915 but travelled through midlands area with FMC during 1930-1950’s. Thx u
Debi Higson | Mon Aug 2, 2021 at 8:29pm
I’m looking for any information about the Green family who worked on the boats. My grandmother married Frank Prince and we’ve connected with a lot of that side of family but not the Greens. Annie was born in Ellesmere Port in 1915 but travelled through midlands area with FMC during 1930-1950’s. Thx u
Whilton Marina | Fri Sep 3, 2021 at 12:14pm
Hi Debi, Unfortunately we have no information on the Green family. Good Luck with your search. Many Thanks
Ian Smith | Tue Jan 11, 2022 at 3:11pm
Can anyone tell me where boat crews got their drinking water from in the 1960's? Current water points often have the old BW bridge logo cast into them, but this logo was not created until the 1970s or 80s - were there earlier water points, or did crews have to rely on pubs, houses or the canal itself?
Gaynor Shelley | Thu Mar 31, 2022 at 8:10am
Can anyone help me with the ‘shelley family!’ I have just learnt from my dad who’s 80 this year, that his dad were bargees.Would be really interested if anyone has any info x
Dave Bailey | Wed Apr 20, 2022 at 10:52am
Hi. Interesting comments. My maternal ancestors ( 2 generations of "Sealey" surname). Worked on the canals between circa 1790's and 1850's living at various times in Buckingham --Chester---Birmingham and London. BUT---their "professions" on various documents was recorded as "Labourer". I therefore suspect that they were not rich enough to OWN a barge. Therefore 2 QUESTION's please . Did families work as hired hands on barges ( limited space)? Did families work along the canal systems in some other way? Hope some experts can help please. Thanks.
Sue Hubbard | Thu May 19, 2022 at 4:10pm
Hello. I am a novelist and my current novel is set on the Regent’s Canal.Could anyone kindly tell me what accent those delivering coal and timber between the wars would have had? Was it London cockney or something else?Thanks.
Yana | Tue May 24, 2022 at 8:20pm
I'm a descendent of a family that worked and lived on the narrowboat 'President' that currently lives at the Black Country Living Museum. Must be in the genes as my Dad, Uncle and Brother all own and live aboard narrowboats themselves albeit in gentler condtions than their great, great grandmother!
Susan Underwood nee Kent | Sat Jun 18, 2022 at 2:30pm
Hi My Family the Kents worked on the narrowboats from about the 1890's. Some are buried at Braunstone, May Kent drowned when she was six. They lived mainly in Leicestershire, Foleshill Coventry and Northampton. John James Kent was a number one with his own boats working out of Atherstone. Others worked For Fellows Moreton and Clayton along the Coventry and Grand Union Canals. Lived at Foleshill Bedwoth Sutton Stop/Hawkesbury. Any information gratefully received. Thanks
Geri | Mon Aug 8, 2022 at 7:45pm
Good Day.My grandmothers Parents were bargees, surname Pickett. Any info would be much appreciated. Thank you
Doreen Addicott | Tue Sep 27, 2022 at 1:02pm
My husbands grandparents and mother worked the boats, approx. WW1 time. Their company was called John Walker Boats from Bugbrooke. I have a history group on FB for people to share information about their working boat families and to try to get help with their family trees, this is the link to the group:
Joanna | Sun Oct 2, 2022 at 9:27pm
Hey my great grandparents last name beechy and my grandparents richard and edith haywood worked the badges and had a family on there own on them too, they worked for clayton and mortans boats called the Nelson the kildare and another one but I've forgot the name of it but the kildare is at the black country museum still
David shaw | Tue Nov 15, 2022 at 8:18pm
I lived on the canal boats from when Five years of age until I was 15 years ago we work for Thomas Clayton oil boats pair of British waterways boats where I went to school at Ballsbridge and then we move willow Wren Boats
Whilton Marina | Tue Dec 13, 2022 at 10:00am
Hi David, Thank you for sharing your story, we hope your still enjoying the canals.
Lorraine Jane Smith | Wed Mar 8, 2023 at 12:38pm
Hi -I'm a descendant of a family that worked and lived on the canals. My Grandfather was born on a boat in Birmingham canal basin in 1906., and I have traced a direct male line back 3 more generations to 1795. My Great grandfathers were all listed as 'Masters' . Can you please advise where I might get information relating to the boats names, cargo's etc
Whilton Marina | Thu Mar 9, 2023 at 10:57am
Hi Lorraine, Unfortunately we can not give you any information on your great grandfathers 'Master' All the information we have is written in this blog, we wish you all the best in your investigation. Many thanksWhilton Marina
Sarah Monk | Wed Jun 14, 2023 at 1:41pm
Hi, I'm a member of the Monk family related to Sir Thomas Monk and all my family lived and worked on the boats, mainly from Nelson cement works. My Great Gran 'Nee Rice decided to move into one of the cement houses in Stockton so her 5 children could get an education, as she could not read or write.
Tonks | Fri Sep 1, 2023 at 8:31am
My father uncles and aunts were all born and brought up on the boats . All the stories he told us when he was growing up and how hard times were, There route was Gloucester to Birmingham, The boat they used was The oak
Tonks | Fri Sep 1, 2023 at 9:25pm
My father uncles and aunts were all born and brought up on the boats . All the stories he told us when he was growing up and how hard times were, There route was Gloucester to Birmingham, The boat they used was The oak
Tonks | Sat Sep 2, 2023 at 7:36am
My father uncles and aunts were all born and brought up on the boats . All the stories he told us when he was growing up and how hard times were, There route was Gloucester to Birmingham, The boat they used was The oak

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